Meditation and Science: Two Views of Life

At the Spiritual Naturalism Society website, Jay Forest’s fine article on “Introduction to Insight Meditation,” also known as mindfulness or Vipassana meditation, opens with several helpful definitions by teachers and writers of what this meditation is about. The explanations include, for example, “observation of the reality within oneself, to see the laws of life by our own true, careful, and direct observation” and “penetrative observation [to realize] the nature of our mind and body process.”

The theme in many of these phrases is observation and perhaps it was that word that caught my attention. I meditate irregularly but often enough to know a little of the calm and sense of clarity that comes with it. What had not dawned on me before is that I feel a similar calmness when I try to observe in my imagination the long chain of living things of which we are all a part. Meditation and visualizing our biological past certainly differ in their emphasis on internal experience versus objective knowledge. Still, in combination, as observations of “the nature of our mind and body process,” they are in some ways oddly complementary.

Forest himself writes that Vipassana is “the exploration and observation of inner space, and one who practices Vipassana is a scientist of inner space.” The comparison of the meditator to the scientist works in the other direction as well. A scientist’s attitude of calm, careful observation has a contemplative quality to insofar as he or she, like the meditator, sets aside words in order to let phenomena speak for themselves.

The difference might be compared to the tone of an instrument such as a French horn and an entire piece of music such as a horn concerto. The first sound is concentrated, distilled; the second complexity of sounds tells a story. Each one implies and makes possible the other. So, to an extent, do the “observing” activities of meditation and scientific study.


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